Festival of the Americas

JoAnn Faletta injects the Ulster Orchestra with a newfound rhythm

JoAnn plus Joanna: it's rare enough to see a woman on the podium conducting a professional orchestra, even more unusual to have her flanked by a top-flight pianist who also happens to be female.

That's what happened, however, when Joanna MacGregor joined JoAnn Falletta, the new principal conductor of the Ulster Orchestra, to open this year's Ulster Bank Belfast Festival at Queen's at the Waterfront Hall last Friday.

The two certainly struck sparks off one another, firstly in Gershwin's glittering 'Rhapsody in Blue' (the original, punchier jazz-band version, not Grofe’s blowsier re-scoring for full orchestra), then his 'I Got Rhythm' variations for piano and orchestra.

Gershwin is very much go-to territory for Falletta, a native New Yorker and erstwhile pupil of the legendary Leonard Bernstein. Her jigging, bounding podium presence energises the Ulster Orchestra into playing of lightness, wit and agility, bluesily idiomatic and full of slinky solo work from individual soloists, clarinettist Francesco Paolo Scola in particular, who is superb throughout the evening.

MacGregor loves this repertoire, and made some excellent Gershwin recordings for the now defunct Collins label, recently reissued on Warner Classics. Her view of the music balances a poised elegance of delivery with the improvisational spirit that infuses all of Gershwin’s writing for piano, with specially sensitive, beguiling playing in the many lyrical passages.

Both she and Falletta bring finesse and subtlety to music which is often hyper jazzed up and over-projected by performers. I wonder is it time for MacGregor to consider a re-recording? In a week that saw the Ulster Orchestra resume its relationship with the Naxos label, taping Holst’s 'Cotswold Symphony' for their first CD with JoAnn Falletta, it’s a possibility worth investigating.

Falletta also knew Aaron Copland, and conducted his 'Three Latin American Sketches' and 'El salón México' with real authority, her technically immaculate baton technique a huge advantage in such highly syncopated, rhythmically complex music.

The Ulster Orchestra’s collective reflexes are already sharpening under Falletta’s direction, as their incisive, confident account of Bernstein’s 'Three Dance Episodes' from On the Town demonstrated. Some silky violin playing and swinging solo work from principal saxophonist Paul Schumann are specially impressive.

If the less familiar pieces from the South American continent (Piazzolla’s 'Tanzago' and Márquez’s 'Danzón No.2') aren’t quite on the same level artistically as the Gershwin, Copland and Bernstein items, it is good to hear them done so enthusiastically, and to see them included in an excellent example of adventurous festival programming.

The concert, deftly compered by John Toal of BBC Radio Ulster, is broadcast live on Radio 3, and serves as a timely nationwide advertisement for the new Falletta era at the Ulster Orchestra.

It’s early days as yet, but a clear picture is certainly emerging: Falletta is a musician to the core, a clear, uncluttered thinker, and a consummate communicator when speaking to an audience (as she does several times during the evening).

Her influence on the orchestra is already audible, in the increased transparency of textures evident at Friday’s concert, and the space that she creates musically for individual sections and musicians to make their own distinctive contribution. Her next visit to Belfast, in early February, is eagerly awaited.

Visit What's On for information on all other Ulster Bank Belfast Festival events.